by Alexandra Golgot (Romania)
Certain people you meet or things you witness stay with you forever. And it is usually the painful memories that linger, that change the way you see life. The war in Ukraine has affected millions of people, who have been forced to leave their homes and even their pets behind. It has also caused immense damage to infrastructure and buildings, and there is no end in sight.
Me and my boyfriend, Raimo, met 6 years ago, in Baia Mare, a small city in northern Romania. He’s Estonian and has been working as a factory mechanic here, and I’m a translator and run a dog shelter with my friend Viorica and her husband. Through our work rescuing dogs we came to start a wonderful collaboration many years ago with a London based charity helping dogs in Romania, namely Paws2Rescue, run by an amazing team of volunteers, lead by Alison Standbridge. Hundreds of our dogs have found homes in the UK thanks to them, and their constant neutering campaigns have prevented countless unwanted puppies from being born. Because of our mutual respect and trust we decided to partner once again, this time for a project involving delivering aid into Ukraine.
We returned from Ukraine a few days ago, after 4 days in which we distributed aid in the cities of Kharkiv and Zhaporozye, donated by Paws2Rescue: 1 tone of dog food and 200 deworming pills for two dog shelters, and donated from one person: 60 packages of water and food for the soldiers that we distributed to those stationed at the checkpoints around Kharkiv and first aid products that we took to a military hospital in the same area.
We crossed the border from Romania into Ukraine and started the 3000 km road trip, with a van full of items that are greatly needed, and that are very hard or impossible to find in eastern Ukraine. We passed hundreds of military checkpoints where we were asked where we are going, some searched the van while others inspected our documents. We slept in the van for the first two nights, including the night we spent at the last checkpoint before entering the city of Kharkiv at 9:45 pm. It was already pitch black and while Raimo was driving I was filming the flashes and flares of the artillery and explosions only a few km from our location. Before entering the city we were stopped by 4 soldiers, and we had to go through the security check, including calling the ladies working at the shelter where we were supposed to arrive the next day. It is perfectly understandable to have this level of security, considering there are individuals every day, across Ukraine, who are carrying out acts of treason, sabotage and are basically informants for Russia, giving out information on train schedules, buildings that house refugees, military transports, storage facilities etc. Especially at that time of night (curfew is at 10 pm across the country), our van had to be thoroughly checked. The next morning we drove into Kharkiv, which in February was home to 2 million people. Empty roads, and an even emptier city. Businesses boarded up everywhere, two women we met living in the subway station underground, with only a mattress and a few personal items (we handed them 2 packets with food), buildings that were shelled and were missing entire floors, or had a collapsed roof. Even a few government buildings in the centre were destroyed, and all that was standing was the facade. We started driving towards the frontline, and we got to about 12 km from the Russian border and the actual war zone, when we had to turn around because it was not safe anymore. When we asked if we could drive further to deliver the rest of the packets to the soldiers, the answer was: “Not today”. And that’s because, after two weeks of relative quiet, the Russian shelling had begun once again just two days before we got there, and they couldn’t risk having even more civilian casualties.
We continued our trip and went to a small village outside of Kharkiv where we delivered a third of the dog food to an elderly women in crutches who was rescuing dogs. She had just received another 25 dogs from a village that was shelled nearby, and these dogs were all in a terrible mental state, very agitated and afraid, refusing to eat, hiding. In total she was caring for over 50 dogs and about 20 cats. Our next stop, on the same day, was in the southern city of Zhaporozye, this time at a large dog shelter, housing more than 400 dogs. Before the war started they had 300 dogs, and they were forced to take in a huge number of abandoned animals in the span of just a few months. They were happy to see us, and surprised that we had come all this way to help the dogs. Very clean and nicely built shelter, considering that only a young couple and their 8 year old boy were taking care of all the dogs, and they were also living right next to the shelter.
During our time in Ukraine (this was our third trip) we met many extraordinary people, who since the beginning of the war have been helping both people and animals (refugees and abandoned animals). In addition to the dog shelters we arrived at on this trip, we were welcomed on our third night at the home of two volunteers who deeply impressed us with their involvement, love of country and all that is alive. They have one child of their own, and 4 adopted, they have turned their entire garden into a sanctuary for 100 pets from war-torn areas such as Mariopol (guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, chinchillas, parrots, turtles, etc.). In addition, the entire basement of their house has been set up to accommodate refugees, and so far more than 40 people have stayed there, some for a few days and some for several weeks, until they had to continue their journey. In addition, they all worked to make camouflage nets that they donated to the military. They don’t ask for money from anyone, but spend all my money they had saved during their lifetime to help anyone. Just like that, because it’s the right thing to do. How many people think like that these days? The sad part is that they are very close to the conflict zone, and they were also preparing to go to the west of the country, where their children are. They leave their house to another family who arrived from a town that was completely destroyed by shelling, a family that no longer has a house to return to, and they have no money to go elsewhere. They will now take care of these animals, and the family that owns the house hopes to be able to return soon. They told us, barely finding their words through their tears, that they had worked their whole lives and they don’t know if they will have anything left when this war comes to an end.
Unlike them and millions of others, displaced by conflict, we were lucky to be able to cross the border back into Romania, and back to safety. To be able to come home. This trip has left a dark stain on my soul, and at the same time has opened my eyes to the endless resource that is caring. We are all volunteers because we care. Sometimes, no matter the time spent, missed work, long days, loss of comfort and basic hygiene even, you just have to do the right thing.